096: An African diplomat in London, 1905

The Hon. J. J. Thomas in the “Sphere” 10 June 1905

The tropical African colonies of Britain lacked local representatives who had access to the power-brokers. In Sierra Leone from 1863 the governor had four advisors and a similar number of ‘unofficial’ members appointed by the governor. The first African ‘unofficial’ was John Ezzidio, and others included Samuel Lewis (see page 021). From 1901 to 1916 successful merchant James Jonathan Thomas, who had migrated to and prospered in Lagos from the 1860s, was on the council. He settled back in Freetown in 1900, endowed a public library and became a member of the council.
The council basically rubber-stamped legislation approved in London, but the African members did dispense advice to the colonial government and listened to complaints from Africans. In 1905 Thomas was invited to the British king’s levee at St James’s Palace in London, and was presented to the king-emperor. It was the fashion to wear court dress, including knee breeches, gloves and sword. Thomas posed at a photographic studio, and the image (above) was published in the Sphere on 10 June 1905.
The Times of 20 May 1905 listed the guests who had attended the levee on 19 May. Included were numerous princes and others from the aristocracy, three Indian army officers and five Indian officials, ambassadors from France, the USA, Russia and Spain, and representatives from China and Japan. Failure to attend would have been seen a snub or insult.
In November Thomas was elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society of London (no geographical exploits were needed) and in 1908 he was awarded a C.M.G. (Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George), and served in the council until 1916 where, following Samuel Lewis’s death in London in 1903, very little attention was paid to the statements and speeches made by African members.


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